During that time, I got into the habit of having imaginary conversations with C. S. Lewis. This isnt so unusual. I tend to have imaginary conversations a lot with Richard Dawkins or Steven Pinker or whoever Ive been reading lately (though mainly only non-fiction; I dont do this with Terry Pratchett). But I read so much Lewis that it became ingrained. When I became an atheist, the conversations became distinctly more adversarial, but they continued. More recently, having known Lewis first as a fiction author and then as an apologist, Ive rediscovered him all over again as a literature theorist; possibly the last professional literature theorist to write intelligibly.
And Lewis keeps coming into my head, whenever I see or hear something that he would remark upon. But now theres a twist. A large amount of my life is spent on the internet. Nearly all the things I read that I then chat with Lewis about, I read on the internet. So now, our conversations always start with me trying to explain to him how computers and the internet work. And when I say start with, I mean thats usually as far as they get before Im distracted by some practical consideration. I really do wonder what he would have thought of the internet. Lewis was not a big fan of science and technology, but I think he might have made an exception here. He felt that the modern age was descending into a grey, culturally ignorant shabbiness, neglectful of art and language. But his modern age was the early-to-mid-20th century, before the electronic revolution brought art and music and knowledge undreamed-of into our homes and now, even, our pockets. I like to think it would have given him hope.
Studying NarniaIts become popular in the blogosphere to go through a big (fiction) book or series chapter by chapter, analysing and commenting on character developments and foreshadowings and what not as you go. Ive seen it done for The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series, and as a matter of fact its currently being done with the Narnia Chronicles by one Ana Mardoll. Partly because its already being done, and partly because I doubt I have the stamina, Im not going to do a chapter-by-chapter. I do intend to do a book-by-book run-through, though.
Now, Im no C. S. Lewis. I didnt take English beyond high school, and I spent very little of my teenage years reading classic poetry, so I wont be pulling out all the allusions to Spenser and Milton and Dante that I gather are sprinkled throughout the Narnia books. I did do a small amount of deconstruction during my time in cultural anthropology the one kind of literary analysis that I know for a fact Lewis never did. You never get told, in so many words, how to deconstruct things, because telling people things in so many words is the sort of thing that gets deconstructed. But I did come up with a simple method that stood me in reasonable stead in my Anthro papers.
First, you go through your text and find arguments where theyve skipped a step, and need what are called bridging premises. A simple everyday example: Those clouds look dark, so Id better get the washing in is missing a premise or three. We havent spelled out Dark clouds bring rain; rain makes things wet; I want the washing to stay dry, because we assume everybody knows all those things without being told. Our conversations would look very strange, and run to Entish length, if we made all our bridging premises explicit; so there are always plenty such gaps to be found in any text. (Perspicacious readers will find one in that very sentence.)
But the original sentence in my example says nothing about rain. The only bridging premise which is justified on the basis of the sentence alone is If there are dark clouds about, it is better to bring the washing in any further inference calls upon theory (in this case, meteorological theory) not found in the text. So the next step in my deconstruction method was to find premises (underlying assumptions, I called them) that made sense of the text as a whole. Deconstructionism in general takes a vaguely Marxist view of human interaction that people identify both themselves and others as members of groups, and that their main motivation is power and legitimacy for their group. Therefore, whenever a text allows multiple different underlying assumptions, you pick the one that best fits that pattern.
Notice the implications of that last step. Deconstructionists often claim to discover colonialist, Eurocentric, or patriarchal assumptions underlying the texts they examine. In fact deconstruction is all too often a matter of inventing such assumptions; just as the supposed witches of the sixteenth century confessed to the witch-hunters lurid sexual fantasies. Perhaps thats going too far. I dont wish to equate deconstructionists with theocratic police or torturers, and the accusations they make are at least not superstitious colonial and patriarchal systems, unlike witchcraft, do exist and do inform a lot of peoples world-views, Lewiss included. My point is that it takes more than preconception to find them.
The reply of the deconstructionists will usually include the phrase death of the author, due to Roland Barthes. Barthes (according to his Wikipedia page) thought that, if youre trying to understand a text, youd do better to look at the context of social norms and conventions surrounding it, and the previous texts on which it draws, than to consider its writer. The author has no God-like control over its meaning the reader can choose to interpret the text in any way that seems right. Barthes appears to have thought only bourgeois people would have a problem with that.
Postmodernism is never as ground-breaking as it likes to suppose. Lewis, the literary critic, anticipated just such an approach to the old texts he studied:
I am sometimes told that there are people who want a study of literature wholly free from philology; that is, from the love and knowledge of words... they are either crying for the moon or else resolving on a lifetime of persistent and carefully guarded delusion. If we read an old poem with insufficient regard for change in the overtones, and even the dictionary meanings, of words since its date if, in fact, we are content with whatever effect the words accidentally produce in our modern minds then of course we do not read the poem the old writer intended. What we get may still be, in our opinion, a poem; but it will be our poem, not his... Of course any man is entitled to say he prefers the poems he makes for himself out of his mistranslations to the poems the writers intended. I have no quarrel with him. He need have none with me. Each to his taste.
We are all authors now. Over the past fifteen years a code of etiquette has grown up among us about the way to treat real-time textual communication. And one of its rules is that interpreting someone elses Facebook status or blog post any way you please, without reference to its authors intention, is simply rude. Such insensitive interpretations are therefore ruled out of court from the beginning. I can see no reason why they should be brought back in just because the original author is absent, even permanently, from the discussion.
This doesnt mean as Ive been reminded that intention is magic. Of course anyone setting out to communicate has a certain degree of responsibility as to the content of their communication. If everyone misunderstands what you said, then you probably said it wrong. But it has to be a two-way street. For any snippet of language, including a text, there are two things that can reasonably be called its meaning: what the author intended by it, and what most of the audience are likely to understand from it. So if youre going to go around announcing that Talking Beasts must have been discriminated against in Narnia because there was only one non-Human on the Dawn Treader, youd better check whether thats what the author meant, because most readers of the text dont get that impression (as compared to, say, the racist overtones in the descriptions of the Calormenes).
Agreeing on a comprehensive theory of literary success would hardly enhance the livelihood of literary critics, but one major component, after Is this interesting?, must surely be Is the authors intended meaning the one understood by the reader? with an important caveat. As time goes on, not only do the meanings of words change, but so do peoples social attitudes. Ive blogged about this before. The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle were not racist by the standards of the 1950s. Personally, I would think that if you can explain to a young reader that gay and queer mean cheerful and strange respectively in the Narnia books (both words come up fairly often), then you can explain that people back then were a bit more suspicious of foreign cultures than we are.
So why was there only one non-Human on the Dawn Treader? I had no trouble thinking up a consistent in-world reason that didnt involve discrimination. Youll remember that there was no navigation and no ship-building in Telmarine Narnia; Caspians voyage was the first for over a thousand years. The ship-builders must have been hired from the island nations of Galma and Terebinthia, where if I recall correctly they dont have Talking Beasts (or Dwarfs, or Centaurs, or any of the others). They would not, then, be accustomed to building ships that could easily accommodate sailors of a very different size and shape to Humans. But I dont think that was what Lewis intended.
The fact is that Lewis didnt bother much with consistency between books in a series. At the end of Out of the Silent Planet, he pretends that the book is a piece of consciousness-raising about a real interplanetary voyage, and makes out that the protagonists name, Elwin Ransom, has been a pseudonym all along. Then in the sequel, Perelandra (published in some places as Voyage to Venus), a fairly important plot-point-cum-thematic-message hangs on the fact that Ransom is his real name. Nor did he keep many of his old notes around for comparison. This was how he managed to churn out the entire Narnia series in less than half the time it took J. R. R. Tolkien to finish The Lord of the Rings, which may be one reason why Tolkien didnt like Narnia much. But a deeper reason is surely the two mens very different approach to realism in fantasy.
To Tolkien, the whole business of writing fantasy was to construct an internally coherent Secondary World with its own consistent rules. Thats why The Lord of the Rings took him so long; every detail had to fit into the whole, down to which branch of hobbits Sméagol was related to and where the name Gamgee came from. Lewis didnt consider background consistency to be essential to a story. He distinguished between Realism of Presentation, which he defined as the art of bringing something close to us, making it palpable and vivid, by sharply observed or sharply imagined detail, and Realism of Content, which is when a work is probable or true to life. A work can have one, or both, or neither, and still be great.
...Let it be granted that Lear divided his kingdom; that the riche gnof in the Millers Tale was infinitely gullible; that a girl who puts on boys clothes becomes instantly unrecognisable to everyone, including her lover; that calumnies against our nearest and dearest, even when uttered by the most suspicious characters, will be believed. Surely the author is not saying This is the sort of thing that happens? Or surely, if he is, he lies? But he is not. He is saying, Suppose this happened, how interesting, how moving, the consequences would be! Listen. It would be like this. To question the postulate itself would show a misunderstanding; like asking why trumps should be trumps... That is not the point. The raison detre of the story is that we shall weep, or shudder, or wonder, or laugh as we follow it.
But why should the characters be disguised as animals at all? The disguise is very thin, so thin that Grahame makes Mr Toad on one occasion comb the dry leaves out of his hair. Yet it is quite indispensable. If you try to rewrite the book with all the characters humanized you are faced at the outset with a dilemma. Are they to be adults or children? You will find that they can be neither. They are like children in so far as they have no responsibilities, no struggle for existence, no domestic cares. Meals turn up; one does not even ask who cooked them. In Mr Badgers kitchen plates on the dresser grinned at pots on the shelf. Who kept them clean? Where were they bought? How were they delivered in the Wild Wood? Mole is very snug in his subterranean home, but what was he living on? If he is a rentier where is the bank, what are his investments? The tables in his forecourt were marked with rings that hinted at beer mugs. But where did he get the beer? In that way the life of all the characters is that of children for whom everything is provided and who take everything for granted. But in other ways it is the life of adults. They go where they like and do what they please, they arrange their own lives.
To that extent the book is a specimen of the most scandalous escapism: it paints a happiness under incompatible conditions the sort of freedom we can have only in childhood and the sort we can have only in maturity and conceals the contradiction by the further pretence that the characters are not human beings at all. The one absurdity helps to hide the other.
Hamlet is not faced with a ghost in order that his reactions may tell us more about his nature and therefore about human nature in general; he is shown reacting naturally in order that we may accept the ghost.
All that being said, I think we can divine a number of subtexts in the Narnia stories. Many, of course, are fully intentional. Others represent particular obsessions or fixations of Lewiss which he may not have been fully aware of, but which return repeatedly through his works and are clearly present in the Narnia texts. We must insist on a reasonable standard of evidence for these subtexts; I think, at minimum, we need to show either that they were intentional, or that they can be clearly identified as a recurring element in Lewiss thought. And when things come up that spoil the stories for us, like the taint of racism in the two Calormene books, I think we have to take Lewiss social and cultural context into consideration before we condemn them as an artistic (or moral) fault as such.
Once a King, Always a KingC. S. Lewis mostly succeeded in keeping his Christianity from biasing his scholarship, but it confronts us on every page of his fiction. He always said that he wrote his stories by seeing pictures in his head, and the morals came later. This is evident in his two extant unfinished fiction works, titled The Dark Tower and After Ten Years by their editor, which had not reached the theologizing stage when they were abandoned. But it is equally evident that he needed the theological messages to glue his images into plots.
A minor point here, but one that will arise repeatedly. The Narnia books are often called allegories of Christian doctrine, especially The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. They are not. Lewis was an expert on mediaeval allegory, and his first work of prose fiction, The Pilgrims Regress, is allegorical: every character, every location, every incident, stands for some specific idea or concept in the real world. In Narnia, it is not so. As Lewis told some American children who had written to him,
You are mistaken when you think that everything in the books represents something in this world. Things do that in The Pilgrims Progress but Im not writing in that way. I did not say to myself Let us represent Jesus as He really is in our world by a Lion in Narnia; I said Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen. If you think about it, you will see that it is quite a different thing. So, the answer to your first two questions is that Reepicheep and Nick-i-brick [sic] dont, in that sense, represent anyone. But of course anyone in our world who devotes his whole life to seeking Heaven will be like R, and anyone who wants some worldly thing so badly that he is ready to use wicked means to get it will be likely to behave like N.
All your points are in a sense right. But Im not exactly representing the real (Christian) story in symbols. Im more saying Suppose there were a world like Narnia and it needed rescuing and the Son of God (or the Great Emperor oversea) went to redeem it, as He came to redeem ours, what might it, in that world, have been like? Perhaps it comes to much the same thing as you thought, but not quite.
- The creation of Narnia is the Son of God creating a world (not specially our world).
- Jadis plucking the apple is, like Adams sin, an act of disobedience, but it doesnt fill the same place in her life as his plucking did in his. She was already fallen (very much so) before she ate it.
- The stone table is meant to remind one of Moses table.
- The Passion and Resurrection of Aslan are the Passion and Resurrection Christ might be supposed to have had in that world like those in our world but not exactly like.
- Edmund is like Judas a sneak and a traitor. But unlike Judas he repents and is forgiven (as Judas no doubt wd. have been if hed repented).
- Yes. At the v. edge of the Narnian world Aslan begins to appear more like Christ as He is known in this world. Hence, the Lamb. Hence, the breakfast like at the end of St. Johns Gospel. Does not He say You have been allowed to know me in this world (Narnia) so that you may know me better when you get back to your own?
- And of course the Ape and Puzzle, just before the last Judgement (in the Last Battle) are like the coming of Antichrist before the end of our world.
Being a democrat, I am opposed to all very drastic and sudden changes of society (in whatever direction) because they never in fact take place except by a particular technique. That technique involves the seizure of power by a small, highly disciplined group of people; the terror and the secret police follow, it would seem, automatically. I do not think any group good enough to have such power.
I believe in political equality. But there are two opposite reasons for being a democrat. You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice. That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy. On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows.
That I believe to be the true ground of democracy. I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife, learned over simple to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast. I believe that if we had not fallen... patriarchal monarchy would be the sole lawful government. But since we have learned sin, we have found, as Lord Acton says, that all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The only remedy has been to take away the powers and substitute a legal fiction of equality.
I cannot for the life of me see why a society of unfallen beings would be more authoritarian than ours. Surely if everyone were invariably motivated to do right, that would remove most of the need for authority? Granted, some people might not be as wise as others, but surely if no-one was selfish, spiteful, manipulative, obstructive, or dishonest many heads would be better than one? And how on earth (or anywhere else) would patriarchal authority guarantee wise policy?
Indeed, it would seem to contradict another of Lewiss oft-revisited ideas: that we all instinctively recognise good and evil when we see them, and if we dislike the good its because it challenges the evil in us. The point arises in Narnia when Edmund (as yet unredeemed) feels horror at the name of Aslan, when Eustace calls Lucys healing cordial beastly stuff, and in many other places, as well see. But if we all know good from evil at sight, and if we were unfallen and didnt dislike the good, then why would we need anyone else to tell us what to do?
Since Lewiss religious-political ideas twine all through his fiction, were going to need some way of dealing with them critically. Dorothy Sayers wrote a series of radio plays based on the Gospels, The Man Born to be King, during World War II a work Lewis much admired. Heres her argument from the introduction to the print publication:
A loose and sentimental theology begets loose and sentimental art-forms; an illogical theology lands one in illogical situations; an ill-balanced theology issues in false emphasis and absurdity. Conversely, there is no more searching test of a theology than to submit it to dramatic handling; nothing so glaringly exposes inconsistencies in a character, a story, or a philosophy as to put it upon the stage and allow it to speak for itself. Any theology that will stand the rigorous pulling and hauling of the dramatist is pretty tough in its texture. Having subjected Catholic theology to this treatment, I am bound to bear witness that it is very tough indeed. As I once made a character say in another context: Right in art is right in practice; and I can only affirm that at no point have I yet found artistic truth and theological truth at variance.
The Problem of PainThere is another, still more problematic motif haunting Lewiss works. It has been noted before, by a psychoanalytical critic named David Holbrook. Holbrooks theory to explain it (let me say up front) is so much pseudo-scientific burble, but the phenomenon he has noted is quite real. I refer to Lewiss evident delight in making unlikeable characters suffer pain and humiliation, apparently for the readers moral instruction or even mere amusement. He had a defence ready:
Nor do most of us find that violence and bloodshed, in a story, produce any haunting dread in the minds of children. As far as that goes, I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. For, of course, it wants to be a little frightened.
It goes deeper. Lewis was a Protestant, or at least he joined the Church of England despite having many Catholic friends, but he believed in Purgatory until his death. Here he is in his posthumous work on prayer (formatted as a series of letters to a fictitious friend Malcolm):
Our souls demand Purgatory, dont they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy? Should we not reply, With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, Id rather be cleaned first. It may hurt, you know Even so, sir.
I assume that the process of purification will normally involve suffering. Partly from tradition; partly because most real good that has been done me in this life has involved it. But I dont think suffering is the purpose of the purgation. I can well believe that people neither much worse nor much better than I will suffer less than I or more.
Heres a curiosity. Lewis was of course well aware that words change their meanings over time he wrote a whole book on the subject, after all. But some of the changes, he maintains, are regrettable, and in particular words may be said to die when they become mere synonyms for good or bad (one thinks of awesome in our own time). Here are a couple of passages. Notice carefully, if you will, the one word he chooses as a casual example both times.
That is always the trouble about allowing words to slip into the abyss. Once turn swine into a mere insult, and you need a new word (pig) when you want to talk about the animal. Once let sadism dwindle into a useless synonym for cruelty, and what do you do when you have to refer to the highly special perversion which actually afflicted M[onsieur] de Sade?
Verbicide, the murder of a word, happens in many ways. Inflation is one of the commonest; those who taught us to say awfully for very, tremendous for great, sadism for cruelty, and unthinkable for undesirable were verbicides.
Across my knee of course makes one thing of positions for Whipping; or rather not for whipping (you couldnt get any swing) but for that torture with brushes. This position, with its childish, nursery associations wd. have something beautifully intimate and also very humiliating for the victim.
As to the other point I often think [William Morris] must have been a special devotee of the rod. Do you remember in the Well at the Worlds End where a man at the Birg of the Four Friths says that the advantage of slave girls as opposed to wives is that we need care nothing for their ill humours so long as the twigs smart and the whips sting? That sentence is dragged in quite unnecessarily and is exquisitely worded.
...I think your father and mother should be shot for keepin you in that hole, while the only other member of your family whom I am interested in [Arthurs sister Lily] could be punished in an other way to the general enjoyment of the operator, and to the great good of her soul.
By the way, what do you mean by the whip in music? At any rate the mere sound of a whip doesnt affect me in the least. Theres no special virtue in a whip hundreds of other methods of mild torture are just as good.
But as to that lady, I remember that you did not agree when I suggested her as a suitable subject for the lash, on that eventful night. But surely now that you have seen her again you must agree with me. Is she not absolutely perfect from head to heel and moreover the necessary part of the body one of the most beautiful parts anyway shaped with an almost intolerable grace? The gods whom Im always abusing certainly produced a masterpiece in her; even to see her walk across the room is a liberal education. Ah me!, if she had suffered indeed half the stripes that have fallen upon her in imagination she would be well disciplined.
I hope you are right as to the possibilities of my finding my particular kind of love. Butler tells me that the person to read on my subject is a Frenchman of the 17th century called the Visconte de sade; his books, however, are very hard to come by.
Holbrooks daffy Freudianism aside, it seems plausible that Lewiss sexuality took this course in response to the vicious treatment he received at the hands of the deranged Robert Capron, headmaster of Wynyard School (Oldie in his autobiography Surprised by Joy), from the age of nine to eleven. And there are some very oblique hints in The Four Loves that he and Joy Davidman enjoyed some consensual play of this kind during the brief years of their marriage. That Lewis had this particular sexual fascination is not a problem for me. That he fooled himself it could function as a character-building moral stimulus, and put it into childrens books as such, is.
Another frequent theme of Lewiss is death-and-rebirth, which he combines with the ascetic Christian idea of mortifying the flesh. Perhaps surprisingly in the light of the aforegoing, he did not mean self-flagellation or anything physical at all. The idea was to put ones sinful nature (including and especially the sex drive) to death by prayer and abstinence, not so that it would disappear, but so that it would be reborn with its sinfulness washed out. Theres a particularly graphic example in The Great Divorce, where the lustful thoughts tormenting one man appear as a lizard on his shoulder, its tail flickering like a whip, whispering in his ear. A fiery angel kills the lizard with the mans consent (causing excruciating pain in the process), and then
For a moment I could make out nothing distinctly. Then I saw, between me and the nearest bush, unmistakably solid but growing every moment solider, the upper arm and the shoulder of a man. Then, brighter still and stronger, the legs and hands. The neck and golden head materialized while I watched, and if my attention had not wavered I should have seen the actual completing of a man an immense man, naked, not much smaller than the Angel. What distracted me was the fact that at the same moment something seemed to be happening to the Lizard. At first I thought the operation had failed. So far from dying, the creature was still struggling and even growing bigger as it struggled. And as it grew it changed. Its hinder parts grew rounder. The tail, still flickering, became a tail of hair that flickered between huge and glossy buttocks. Suddenly I started back, rubbing my eyes. What stood before me was the greatest stallion I have ever seen, silvery white but with mane and tail of gold. It was smooth and shining, rippled with swells of flesh and muscle, whinnying and stamping with its hoofs. At each stamp the land shook and the trees dindled.
But I would be remiss to let this subject go without acknowledging that Lewis was, by all accounts, an unusually kind, polite, and good-humoured human being. Yet he was forever bemoaning his own sinfulness; in the divine hierarchy he put himself somewhere near the bottom of the human race, identifying with Aristotles natural slaves, and when he advocated pain as a moral corrective, he tended to name himself as an example of someone who needed it. I cant help thinking that his sadistic fantasies were probably the sin he was referring to.
One more thing. Most of the Narnia books have centaur characters in them somewhere. Lewis consistently describes them as noble and beautiful, and they all seem to be stargazers and seers. Others have followed him since: J. K. Rowlings centaurs are straight out of Narnia. But Lewis departs, drastically, from the traditional concept of the centaur, which is to say a crazed drunken rapist the horse part representing the lower or bestial drives of human nature. Lewis was not a man to go chopping and changing mythological symbols because it seemed like a good idea at the time; this means something, and I think the Great Divorce passage is a clue. The centaur is like the new-created man, but in such full command of his (unfallen, sanctified) horse that it is in no way separate from his self. And that calls to mind the passage in St Augustine, one of Lewiss most admired Christian thinkers, where he says that you can tell human sexuality got broken in the Fall because men no longer have voluntary control over their penises, to fulfil the command to be fruitful and multiply without all the pother about arousal and orgasm that distracts you from worshipping God. What that all means in the context of the Narnia stories I will explore when I read through the books except for the stargazing, which Ill get to below.
Dont Talk Like a Grown-Up!Actually, sadism is not the only abused word Lewis returns to repeatedly. Another is adolescent. The devil Screwtape blesses it as a means for convincing his nephew Wormwoods patient that his Christianity is just a phase. Age, Lewis argued, matters far less than we think. He argued the point at length more than once.
The process of growing up is to be valued for what we gain, not for what we lose... Why do we hear so much about the defects of immaturity and so little about those of senility?... A taste is childish in the bad sense not because it develops at an early age but because, having some intrinsic defect in it, it ought to disappear as soon as possible. We call such a taste childish because only childhood can excuse it, not because childhood can often achieve it. Indifference to dirt and untidiness is childish because it is unhealthy and inconvenient and therefore ought to be speedily outgrown; a taste for bread and honey, though equally common in our salad days, is not...
Nothing is more characteristically juvenile than contempt for juvenility. The eight-year-old despises the six-year-old and rejoices to be getting such a big boy; the schoolboy is very determined not to be a child, and the freshman not to be a schoolboy. If we are resolved to eradicate, without examining them on their merits, all the traits of our youth, we might begin with this with youths characteristic chronological snobbery. And what then would become of the criticism which attaches so much importance to being adult and instils a fear and shame of any enjoyment we can share with the very young?
To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
The child as reader is neither to be patronized nor idolized; we talk to him as man to man. But the worst attitude of all would be the professional attitude which regards children in the lump as a sort of raw material which we have to handle. We must of course try to do them no harm; we may, under the Omnipotence, sometimes dare to hope that we may do them good. But only such good as involves treating them with respect. We must not imagine that we are Providence or Destiny. I will not say that a good story for children could never be written by someone in the Ministry of Education, for all things are possible. But I should lay very long odds against it.
I think we need to bear this in mind whenever we feel that Lewis is being too harsh on characters who are only children. One of the many ways that our society marginalizes children is by treating their lives and interests as minor matters, including trivializing violence, abuse and betrayal by their peers with words like bullying and tattling. In Narnia, where children are taken seriously, immoral acts by children are taken seriously too. I think Lewis is often needlessly harsh, as much of what Ive already said should make clear; but not because he judges children as adults, that being a consequence of his consistent treatment of child characters throughout the series hes harsh on adults as well.
Meanwhile, the phrase grown up, with or without a hyphen, with very few exceptions indicates foolishness or cynicism. In Narnia as elsewhere, Lewis makes his disapproval of the contempt for youth no secret. Those actively trying to be grown up are wasting their time and being silly. Here we have the beginning of a resolution to what Narnia scholars have called the Problem of Susan, which Ill discuss in proper depth in the read-through.
Lewis also defended his choice to have the Pevensies grow to adulthood in Narnia, then return to childhood when they went home. To one child he argued:
As I say, I think you are right about the other points but I feel sure Im right to make them grow up in Narnia. Of course they will grow up in this world too. Youll see. You see, I dont think age matters as much as people think. Parts of me are still 12 and I think other parts were already 50 when I was 12; so I dont feel it v. odd that they grow up in Narnia while they are children in England.
Before leaving this topic I should also note Lewiss suspicion of the notion of scientific and technological progress not that he doubted it was happening, but that he doubted it would solve all of humanitys problems, and in particular he did not agree with the general mid-twentieth-century idea that technology as such made one society better than another in all ways that were important. Proponents of that idea frequently used the metaphor of growing up to describe progress. Lewiss objection is precisely in line with his idea of growing up in general the need to discard the things of our youth, or of past periods in our culture, is pathological. That was one of the signs that society was going senile. Or, as he sometimes put it, falling under the influence of Saturn.
The Seven HeavensThis is the part where youll think Im deluded. Believe me, when I first picked up Michael Wards book I thought he was deluded. By the time I put it down, I had changed my mind.
Those of us who were Harry Potter fans and active on the internet seven or eight years ago will remember the huge storm in fandom, before and after the release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, over the romantic pairings between the main characters. Some fans were convinced, with fervour no short of religious, that Harry and Hermione were destined to fall in love, that their love would encapsulate the whole meaning of the series, and that there were clues planted through the first five books that made this clear. Exactly what the clues were I never could quite make out I was too busy reading the actual dialogue, which pointed unmistakably to a Ron-Hermione relationship but I gather they had something to do with mediaeval alchemy. I remember chiefly the hilarious expostulations of the Harmonians (they called themselves Harmony, from a portmanteau of Harry and Hermiones names) when they learned, or in many cases refused to learn, that they had been wrong all along. Before them was the theory that Albus Dumbledore was the adult Ron Weasley; time travel was involved, but again the hypothesis rested on the supposed clue that the seven moves of the chess game in Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone were a summary of the seven books.
So, in general, Im suspicious of hidden meaning theories in popular literature. Four main things convince me in this case. First, unlike the Harry Potter hidden meanings, Wards proposed schema is very much un-hidden in the authors other works. It appears throughout his scholarly, apologetic, and fictional writings for thirty years. Though it was a classical and mediaeval belief, supplanted at the very beginning of the scientific endeavour, it had, he said,
a permanent value as [a set of] spiritual symbols to provide a Phänomenologie des Geistes which is specially worth while in our own generation.
And fourth, his idea explains so much. Why does Father Christmas appear in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? Why are there so many forest gods in Prince Caspian? What sort of theme unites all the different islands in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader? Why does Aslan (usually such an interventionist god) stay aloof in his own high country in The Silver Chair? Why isnt Shasta a child from Our World in The Horse and His Boy? Why is the comic-relief villain an amorous fool in The Magicians Nephew? Why does Susan abandon Narnia in The Last Battle? I can and will answer all those questions, and all of my answers will begin with Wards schema.
To do that, however, its going to take me the whole read-through; its not something I can unfold in a couple of paragraphs. So first, I have to decide what order to do that read-through in. Im not particularly interested in the debate over whats the right order to read Narnia in. The numbers you see on the backs of many editions, placing them in in-world chronological order, came from Lewiss reply to one child who wanted to settle an argument with his mother (who thought they should be read in the order they were published):
I think I agree with your order for reading the books more than with your mothers. The series was not planned beforehand as she thinks. When I wrote The Lion, I did not know I was going to write any more. Then I wrote P. Caspian as a sequel and still didnt think there would be any more, and when I had done The Voyage I felt quite sure it would be the last. But I found I was wrong. So perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone reads them. Im not even sure that all the others were written in the same order in which they were published. I never keep notes of that sort of thing and never remember dates.
It is time for the reveal. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien both wrote articles explaining how early mediaeval Germanic alliterative poetry worked. Tolkien included a chunk of Beowulf to illustrate the points he was making. Lewis wrote a whole poem of his own in the metre. Ive formatted it to make the structure of the lines as clear as possible. Here it is. Here is the great theme that he returned to throughout his lifes work. Here is Wards schema for understanding the Narnia books. Here is The Planets.